Vietnam- that one word still has the power to create mixed emotions and adamant reactions from many Americans. What we found was a fascinating country, a crossroads of French and Asian culture, and a complicated history. With none of the pre-conceived ideas that taint our parents feelings for this SE Asian country, we were more able to fully appreciate both the remaining traumas from “the American War” as well as a society with strong ties to it’s French colonialism and location in Asia.
In our time there, we covered a lot of this intriguing country and experienced both the positive and negatives of travel in Vietnam. One of the great positives and highlights of our time was spent in the UNESCO World Heritage Town of Hoi An. Although we suspected we’d enjoy our stay, we were unprepared to be so overwhelmed by this scenic small town. Hoi An has, of course, grown beyond it’s original old town and much of the urban sprawl resembles much of the rest of the country.
But central Hoi An appears to be nearly untouched by time. Being lucky enough to wander a quiet side street alone makes you feel as though you are transplanted back to when Hoi An was the largest port in SE Asia and an important stop on the spice trading route.
Our days in Hoi An were spent spent wandering back streets, taking endless photos, and eating fantastic food. One of the true joys of all of Vietnam is the astonishing juxtaposition of Asian and French cuisine and we were in heaven. We ate at the Cargo Club more than once for their delicious coffee, passion fruit pavlova and baguette sandwiches. Street food, always a favorite was sublime, but our most memorable meal was the Cao Lau at Ba Le Well. Now, much as been written about this dish and this restaurant so don’t think you’ll be the only non-local there, however it is so worth a stop.
Set in a side alley, and not easy to find, Ba Le Well is one of the original restaurants serving up Cao Lao, one of the few dishes in the world only available in one spot. Apparently, the thick noodles can only be made with water from the BaLe wells of Hoi An and if tried to be duplicated elsewhere it just is not the same. Perhaps or perhaps not, but I can tell you this luscious noodle dish featuring succulent roast pork in a flavorful broth served over the previously mentioned noodles and accompanied by all the traditional Vietnamese sides of mint, cilantro, basil, sliced green onions and carrots, and chilies, is fantastic. The “restaurant” consists of child size plastic chairs and tables and it truly in the alley. Locals, fascinated by our presence, surrounded us, each offering up their ideas on the best selection of toppings and in what order to add them to the bowl. Yes, the dish is sublime, but what truly made it special was being there, surrounded by strangers, who all wanted to share in our experience….one of those evenings we’ll never forget.
One of Hoi An’s main draws is the overwhelming number of buildings that are holding on to their original glory. Never bombed during the war, you can easily be captivated for days admiring the fading beauty. We did purchase the Hoi An Cultural Pass so we had full access to the streets of the Heritage old town as well as entrance to our choice of 5 of several historical buildings. Some were certainly worth it and others not, but overall we found it to be a good option for sightseeing.
Tailors, at full force all over the country, seem particularly popular in Hoi An and I broke down and had a silk jacket sewn for me. Made of a spectacular turquoise silk with cranberry silk lining and embroidered flowers it took only two days and is something I wear and will always treasure. Shopping opportunities abound and, while we purchased very little, we did a great deal of window shopping admiring the fantastic and colorful lanterns and umbrellas.
One of our most meaningful stops in Hoi An was at a temple where it was tradition to buy an incense tree to burn with a note in memory of those loved and lost. We purchased a tree in honor of Jim’s sister April and my mom, a suitable and emotional final evening in a lovely town just 10 short days before Christmas.
There are lots of daytrips out of Hoi An that we didn’t take. We did go to the former Cham capital at My Son, but will leave that for a later post. We didn’t go to the nearby beaches, we didn’t go the Japanese tombs or Thahn Ha pottery village. We were simply too enthralled with the atmosphere and architecture of old town Hoi An to venture out of the area. My advice – go to Hoi An. Yes, it’s touristy, yes it’s crowded, but it’s also enchanting and intriguing and well worth the crowds!